Seventh Circuit OKs dismissal of rabbi's discrimination suit against Northwestern

By Jonathan Bilyk | Nov 10, 2014

A federal appeals court has denied a rabbi affiliated with the Chabad Hassidic Jewish tradition the chance to press a religious discrimination claim against Northwestern University, saying the university’s decision to disaffiliate his organization and remove him as the arbiter of kosher at the school was not motivated by anti-Semitism or religious antipathy, but rather his repeated refusal to abide by underage drinking laws.

On Nov. 6, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal of Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein by affirming U.S. District Judge John W. Darrah's dismissal of Klein’s discrimination suit against Northwestern.

The panel's opinion was authored by Judge Richard A. Posner. Judges William J. Bauer and John Daniel Tinder concurred, with Bauer taking the added step of writing a three-sentence concurring opinion to note he “cheerfully" concurred in the ruling he thought was both “enlightening” and “entertaining.”

The case centers on a federal discrimination complaint Klein had brought against Northwestern following the university’s decision in 2012 to sever its relationship with Klein’s Tannenbaum Chabad House.

Since 1985, Klein had operated the Chabad House in Evanston, which operated as an “emissary” to the Northwestern University Jewish community for the Chabad-Lubavitch tradition within Judaism.

The Tannenbaum Chabad House operated as an affiliated religious organization at the university, meaning it enjoyed various rights and privileges on campus, thanks to recognition from Northwestern’s chaplain.

The university also granted Klein authority to work with the university’s campus food supplier, Sodexo, to determine whether various food items complied with Jewish kosher requirements.

The relationship between the university and Chabad House began to fray in 2001 when university officials were alerted to underage drinking occurring at the Chabad House, after a student had to be hospitalized for consuming too much alcohol at an event there.

Despite repeated admonitions from the chaplain asking Klein to rein in the consumption of alcohol at Chabad House, the panel's opinion notes he did nothing to abate alcohol consumption by students under the age of 21. Events at which underage students were allegedly served alcohol by Chabad House included the bar mitzvah of Klein’s son in 2005 in a university-owned dining hall.

Students were also served at events in honor of various Jewish holidays and on Friday evenings at the beginning of Sabbath observances.

Klein defended Chabad House’s practices by saying that requiring students to carry identification to these events in order to verify their ages would violate Jewish religious law.

Posner and his colleagues, however, took a dim view of this argument.

“As far as we’ve been able to determine, plying minors with hard liquor is not required by any Jewish religious observance,” Posner wrote.

In 2012, acting on the complaint of a student’s father, who was also a rabbi of a different Jewish tradition, the university terminated its affiliation with the Chabad House, and stripped Klein of his role as kosher consultant to Sodexo.

Klein sued, first alleging the university’s decision was motivated by anti-Semitism. On appeal, however, he dropped that contention, instead focusing on the federal statute forbidding discrimination in contracts, saying the university’s decision was rooted in hostility to his particular sect of Judaism.

The Seventh Circuit panel, however, said the statute on which Klein’s appeal relied did not address religious discrimination of the type Klein asserts.

Rather, the judges said the facts of the case indicate the dismissal of Chabad House at Northwestern arose out of Klein’s failure to appropriately supervise his organization and his disregard of repeated warnings from university officials about the “heavy drinking” occurring at his organization’s events.

Posner wrote for the panel that Klein had never asked the university for a “second chance” before filing his complaint, and “had gotten away for more than a quarter of a century with an irresponsible attitude toward excessive underage drinking that went on under his nose in the Chabad House, and seems to have thought he could continue to do so, with impunity, indefinitely.”

“Why should he be given fourth and fifth and nth chances?” Posner wrote.

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